Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Made in Japan

Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Made in Japan

The Maker Shed is the exclusive US distributor of Gakken products, allowing shoppers to get high-quality kits from Japan without paying out the nose for shipping costs. Gakken’s kits provide the perfect mix of DIY, science, and history as they entertain as well as educate. Gakken’s popularity is certainly not limited to Japan, as their following has spawned tributes such as the Gakken Flickr pool where users are eager to show off what they’ve done with their kits. In addition to MAKE’s relationship with Gakken, MAKE has a Japanese version of the magazine as well as a very active Japanese version of Make: Online. Make: Japan has also been very proactive in their own version of the Maker Faire (the successful Make: Tokyo Meeting series), having just recently completed the fourth round of this lively event. For your gift-giving guidance, here are a few of my favorite Gakken items for the Maker Shed, as well as a few other items I’ve found in my travels.

New Edison-Style Cup Phonograph Kit ($36.99)
This cup phonograph sits proudly on display in my home, and pretty much everyone who sees it wants to give it a try. This replica kit uses the same technology that Thomas Edison used, replacing Edison’s waxed pipe and stylus with a plastic cup and a needle, but the end results are the same: You record your own voice on a plastic cup — and play it back! Here’s how it works, your voice vibrates the air minutely when it gets into the horn. Then the vibration is conducted to the needle and is translated into a wavy movement of the needle and carves a groove onto the cup. When replaying, the reverse is true, the waves of the carved groove vibrate the needle and the vibration is conducted to the horn and the sound is produced from the horn.

Building the Gakken Cup Phonograph Kit

Here I am, really crooning away for the cup recorder:

This is certainly no MP3 player, but that’s precisely what is so great about it. This plastic cup recorder is sure to pique the interest of everyone who sees it, so you’d better be sure to have some extra cups on hand for demonstration purposes. It’s eerily low-fi and nostalgic — making your voice sound like it’s a hundred years old. You can hear and see the medium speak, and that is what makes this kit so much fun! Clear some space next to your music collection: You might never throw away a plastic cup again.


Origami Pinhole Camera. ($29.99 from Gizmine)
Origami + camera, so very Japanese. A camera made of paper that you build yourself.

Origami camera! This paper construction camera is one you build yourself, and includes everything you need to put it together in about an hour, including the body pieces (paper and plastic), double sided tape and some rubber bands. A great gift for the DIY-er, or for a student photography art project.

Gakken’s Mechanical Animal Kit Series.
These no-solder kits allow you create lively, squirming creatures that teach about mechanics as well as the elegance of the lifeforms they emulate. The Maker Shed is proud to carry the Mechamo Centipede Kit, the Mechamo Crab Kit, ($69.99) and the Mechamo Inchworm Kit ($69.99). See the links below for detailed builds of all three of these kits with video.

Read more:
Build: Gakken Mechamo Centipede
Build: Mechamo Crab & Halloween Hack
Build: Mechamo Crab

Vacuum Tube Radio Kit ($79.99 – $20 off!)
Delve into tube circuitry without having to trouble yourself with digging up old vacuum tubes or braving life-threatening voltages (9-volt batteries to the rescue!) This kit enables the construction of a real, functional, vacuum-tube radio. Pair this with one of those cheap radio transmitters that you might use to hook your MP3 player to your car stereo, and you can bring this radio over to the dark side with fun, unintended consequences. Warning: You’ll need to have five 9V batteries and one “C” battery on hand to make this bad boy run.

  • Includes a pin straightener for the vacuum tubes, a testing microphone so you can make sure everything is hooked up correctly to produce sounds, rubber feet on the fiber board to minimize “howling,” a variable condenser to allow for finer tuning, a recreation of 60-year-old circuits, and a more powerful transformer for better volume and sound quality.

PlaRing Customizable Ring Kits
Clunky Design brings us these unique customizable ring shapes. They’re only available for order from Japan, so be aware of shipping times and associated charges, but these would make a truly unique gift, because, ya know, they kind of look like Transformers heads.


Stirling Engine Kit ($119.99)
Like many of the Gakken products, in addition to being fun and educational, this kit just looks good. The Stirling Engine kit is a majestic piece of art, and is used to understand the basics of thermodynamics. You can try three different experiments: the generator, the fan, and the car. This kit takes about three hours to assemble and no additional special tools are needed.


Karakuri Tea Serving Robot Kit (Sale Price: $59.99)
The Gakken Tea Serving Robot is designed to be a replica of the karakuri zui, an illustrated manual written in the Edo period (1603-1868). This mechanical doll has a tray that holds a cup of tea, and it is designed to approach the guest with the tea, bow his head, and then carry the empty teacup away. Using only springs as power, the term “robot” might at first seem a little strange, as there is no electricity used to make this doll do what it does, nevertheless, this doll has been called one of the original forms of the modern robot, in that it does follow (rudimentary) programmed instructions relating to variables such as if, then, and when. Check it out:

You don’t have to be thirsty for a small cup of tea to see the appeal. Making the karakuri gives you a chance to experience what it was like for innovators and dreamers before the flood of modern technology, to see the trouble they went to as they carved their “code” into pieces wood, metal and other materials instead of uploading it onto microcontrollers like many makers do now. The karakuri is, by definition, a robot, but it is a robot that uses no electricity, and instead of using code as its instructions, it uses a series of mechanical processes to react to its physical environment.

  • Enjoy the beauty of Japanese craftsmanship from days gone by.
  • The instructions (see the “How To” tab for PDF English instructions) were written by Hosokawa Hanzo, more popularly known as “Karakuri” Hanzo, who was an engineer of the Tosa domain.

More on building the Karakuri Robot here.


SX-150 Analog Synthesizer Kit ($54.95)
The kit that started a minor movement, this analog synthesizer has inspired more customizations than probably any other kit in the Maker Shed. This cool little synth kit is easy to put together, requires no soldering and is easy to hack (see links below). This synth features a “wand” to vary the pitch, allowing for portamento-style bends and dips. It runs on 4 AA batteries (not included) so have some on hand and be ready to make some serious (or not-so-serious) noises.


  • Size: 4.5 x 6 inches
  • Controls for LFO, pitch envelope, frequency cutoff, resonance and attack/decay
  • Slide controller (pen type electrode)
  • Output and external input 1/8″ Jacks
  • Small built-in speaker

Related Make Blog Posts:
Review by Collin Cunningham
How to Control via MIDI

Aurorarium ($29.95)
Before there was the iTunes visualizer, there were auroras. Trippy before trippy was even invented. Create your own aurora-like effects with this awesome device. Leave the cone on and enjoy the soft changing lights, or fill the tray with water and see the amazing aurora lights on your wall or ceiling. Word on the street is that it syncs up perfectly to The Dark Side of the Moon ;-)

Gakken Mini-Theremin ($29.95)
Everybody loves a Theremin, especially a little one that you can put together yourself. The Theremin, invented in 1919 by Russian scientist Leon Theremin, is one of the world’s earliest fully electronic instruments, and is also unique in that it was the first musical instrument designed to be played without being touched (perfect for the H1N1 season). Eerie, other-worldly tones are created by the proximity of the player’s hands to the metal antennas, with the resulting radio frequency interference being transformed into musical tones.

Even cats love playing it:



Super 8mm Mini-Projector ($79.95)
This mini Super 8 kit will project Super 8, Single-8 and Regular 8mm film and runs on three AA batteries, it’s hand cranked with a white LED light source and comes with an empty take-up reel and bonus splicing tape. Measures 8.5 inches high and weighs a only 1/2 lb. Fun, retro kit, begging to be hacked! Made of high impact plastic.

More about 8mm film and the Gakken projector.

Stereo Pinhole Camera Kit ($49.95)
Many people love the raw, vintage look of pinhole photography, but this kit takes things one step further by allowing the user to to stereographic (3D) pictures. The camera features three pinholes so that you can take pictures in three formats: regular 35mm, 3D stereo photography, or true panoramic images. See for yourself, there are many beautiful pictures taken with this camera on Flickr.

Plastic Model Camera. ($29.99 from Gizmine)
Here’s another camera, but this one comes with all the pieces, you just have to snap them together yourself! If you ever liked building plastic models, this will be a familiar and fun task for you.

This is certainly unlike any other DIY project we have seen. This camera Kit includes 33 individual pieces that require no adhesive; they simply interlock and you have created a camera. Included diagrams are graphical, but any verbiage is in Japanese — just to give it that extra challenge. A fun and interesting product.


Cameraphone Lenses.

Do your cameraphone pictures not look weird enough? Try sliding one of these optical filters over your cell phone’s camera. Their description says it all: “Now you can add all kinds of crazy effects to your grainy, 1.3mp profile pictures for Facebook!” Includes many of your favorite effects, including fish eye, bug eye, and double vision.


Stress Faces. ($39.99 from Gizmine)
Do you feel happiness? You will. Squeeze these face-balls to make them do all sorts of crazy expressions. Available in four different types of faces.

Designed by Makiko Yoshida in Japan, these Stress Faces can be squeezed to relieve stress and to exercise the muscles of the hand. The designer notes it is safe to throw it during a quarrel between husband and wife because it is very soft. Available in four types of faces.

Here’s a video I took of a display model Tokyu Hands.


The Jupiter Mouse.
A bit pricey, sure, but a truly uniquely crafted item. For the geek who has it all…

This groundbreaking mouse is hand crafted from a flowering ash tree found in Japan, and the natural wood grain swirls resemble the bands circling our largest planet. It controls your cursor via an internal accelerometer that senses how quickly and in what direction you tilt its sphere-shaped body. It is an extremely unique and attractive mouse that makes a great gift for any gadget lover.


Cross Copter EX Kit
Did you know you can personally generate enough power to make a helicopter fly? You can, if the helicopter is the Cross Copter EX. This kit allows you to built a helicopter in several different flying configurations that is powered by a hand-held dynamo. This light, spritely helicopter will freely fly around the room as long as you are able to crank the generator.


Gennai Hiraga’s Spark Generator
Who doesn’t love making sparks? The only thing better is making something that makes sparks. Turn all that nervous energy you have into an electrifying experience.

Hiraga Gennai (1729-79) was an Edo period Japanese pharmacologist, physician, author, painter, and inventor who is well known for his Erekiteru (electrostatic generator). This cool little box replicates his early work in creating static charges.

In the Maker Shed:


Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.

Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:

04 (Fri) – Deadline for microscope shipping

11 (Fri) – postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – ground shipping deadline
18 (Fri) – FedEx 3-day shipping deadline
21 (Mon) – FedEx 2-day shipping deadline
22 (Tue) – FedEx overnight shipping deadline

*Customers experiences on orders with these ship methods placed after these dates may vary, the dates listed are what we call “safe dates”

USPS (Any Method):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, order by Dec. 10th, however, many packages are lost or delayed in transit and we do not replace or refund any orders lost using this ship method, we strongly encourage you to not use this method in December.

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